Could Be Big Boon For UAVs
What the defense
industry hopes will eventually turn into a multi-billion dollar
industry got off the ground earlier this month when NASA announced
a $100 million program to put UAVs in the air over the US.
"The ability to enter national airspace is going to be a
fundamental change to aviation," said NASA's Jeff Bauer, the
The idea is to put UAVs in the sky above 40,000 feet. There,
above most manned air traffic, they would be allowed to join
general air traffic. They would also fly as low as 18,000 feet. At
those altitudes, the aircraft could monitor border areas or check
for forest fires, industry officials said. The industry envisions
drones eventually moving cargo across the country.
Right now, it takes a virtual act of Congress to get a UAV into
skies over the US. In the case of an earthquake or dam bust,
getting the proper clearances could take as long as two months. But
not too long ago, the FAA gave the Air Force clearance to fly its
Global Hawk with almost no restrictions. All the Air Force has to
do is file a flight plan five days in advance and keep the machine
Most of the $100
million in this program will come direct from NASA. But the
aerospace industry, including Boeing Co., Lockheed Martin Corp. and
Northrop Grumman Corp., is expected to contribute an additional $30
million to $40 million. The program will develop technology,
simulation tests and policies governing the planes' use of the
But UAVs have a reputation for coming back to Earth when least
expected. Or so says Washington. In the Kosovo campaign, 10 times
as many UAVs were downed as were manned vehicles.
The FAA says drones should be required to meet the same safety
standards as commercial aircraft. That should include enhanced
crash-avoidance software, said John Mazor, spokesman for the Air
Line Pilots Association. He said NASA has not yet provided details
of the program. "There will be an awful lot of concerns that have
to be satisfied" before drones can go into widespread use, Mazor
So the program will spend a lot of its money on technology
development. That would include developing technology to enhance a
drone's ability to detect another aircraft and avoid it, said NASA
project manager Bauer. At first, industry executives say UAVs will
be able to detect signals sent from commercial jets' transponders
so the pilot on the ground can avoid nearby traffic.
"You're not going to be
able to utilize these things effectively if they cannot be used
safely," Bauer said.
But there's potentially a dark side to the use of UAVs over
American airspace. What about privacy? If the unmanned aircraft are
used for public surveillance, the American Civil Liberties Union
becomes downright worried, said Barry Steinhardt, director of the
ACLU's Program on Technology and Liberty.
"The technological reality is that the government has the
equivalent of Superman's X-ray vision, and these unmanned planes
are an example of that," he said. "Do we want to live in a society
where drone planes ... are constantly monitoring our every
activity? That's the question we're going to have to answer."